Music in the COVID-19 Pandemic


The Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all in different ways. Most of us have had to work from home; holidays and international travel have been cancelled; and we’ve all had to limit our gathering with friends and family in person. One group which has been particularly affected by the restrictions is musicians.
Two of Principal Organs’ clients have come up with some ingenious solutions to ensure that the music has kept on even in the toughest times.


If you can’t play the pedals, sing!


At Sydney Grammar School, at least half of the student population learns an instrument. ‘A lot of boys come to the school for the music,’ Bob Wagner, Head of Instrumental Music at Sydney Grammar School tells us. ‘The music is very much integrated into the school programme.’ There is a significant focus on ensemble performance, with the school putting on about thirty concerts in a normal year.
But when the pandemic closed schools, all instrumental teaching had to move online. ‘We were teaching completely online for seven weeks. Of course there were no ensemble rehearsals at all, but we did put our instrumental programme onto Zoom instantly, and I’m very pleased that one week we were teaching face to face, and the next week we were able to teach our instrumental lessons on Zoom. We have fifty-four staff teaching instruments, and so it was a very busy week with everyone bringing in their devices, getting set up with Zoom, and learning how to use it.’
Bob Wagner currently has eight organ pupils. ‘When Covid happened, everything shut down, and it quickly became apparent that although Zoom lessons were never going to replace in-person lessons, for some instruments it was not a bad substitute. For the organ, when you don’t have access to an instrument at either end (for the student or the teacher), that represented quite a few challenges.’
Bob therefore found himself coming up with ingenious ways to ensure that his organ pupils didn’t lose out while they studied from home. ‘The main difficulty was the boys not having access to a pedal-board. When I was teaching during those seven weeks, we could work on manual parts on a piano, but a large part of the teaching is how to integrate the manuals and the pedals, so the feet learn to work with the hands, and vice-versa.
‘So what I did to deal with that was to have the boys sing the pedal part while they were playing with their hands, which they found tremendously difficult. But I found that when they came back to playing on the organ, it was obvious that they had actually learned, and that it had helped. Getting them to sing is always a good thing, and that’s something I’m doing a bit more of in my teaching, especially getting them to sing while they’re playing.’


A new organ to play


For Bob and all his pupils, the return to school was hotly anticipated, because they had a new instrument to play: a Makin organ supplied by Principal Organs. ‘We have a very fine Mander pipe organ at the school, where I do my teaching. To help boys to practise, we have a studio with an electronic organ in it. Previously we had an Ahlborn, which died a spectacular death at the end of 2019, and so we acquired the Makin from Principal Organs at the start of 2020.’
Bob is particularly pleased with the way the Makin fits in to the musical life of his students. ‘The Makin is perfect for practice: it’s very similar in specification to the organ in Big School,’ which is the room where the Mander organ is installed, the oldest school-room in the country. ‘The Ahlborn was quite a large three-manual instrument, and I found that to be unnecessarily complicated for the boys. It was much better to go back to an instrument which was similar in size [to the Mander], and most of the stop names are similar.
‘If the boys are playing on instruments outside the school, then I’ll teach them how to play that particular instrument and prepare them appropriately. Unlike the Ahlborn, the Makin has a specification more like something they would encounter around Sydney. For example, it has only three stops on the pedal, which might be a disadvantage, except when you realize that that’s what most modest-sized organs are going to have, and therefore they have to learn how to couple Great and Swell, rather than the luxury of having individual stops on the pedal.’
But what attracts pupils to want to learn the organ? Bob Wagner suggests that some of his high-flyers are particularly beguiled by the instrument’s complexity. ‘We’re not a church school, we don’t have a chapel, and quite a few boys when they come in year 7 have never heard a pipe organ. Various things attract them: the boys all visit the school some time in year 6, and part of that experience is that they get to hear the organ play in Big School. It’s where year 7 has its assembly, and there always seems to be a steady stream of boys who want to study the organ.
‘The sound of the organ is very impressive, of course, but what appeals to them is the complexity of the instrument, and the challenge that it gives even the brightest boys is significant. Grammar is an academically selective school, so I’m often teaching boys of very high capacity, and even the best and brightest find the challenge of learning organ to be substantial.’


A loan organ at St Mary’s Cathedral


Down the road from Sydney Grammar School, St Mary’s Cathedral rises up across College Street from Hyde Park, the largest Catholic church in Australia. Thomas Wilson is the Director of Music at St Mary’s Cathedral, where—uniquely in this part of the world—the Cathedral Choir, or parts of that choral foundation, sing the Church’s liturgy almost every day. For them that means two principal Catholic services of Vespers, or evening prayer, and the Mass.
‘The organ plays for every service that has music in the Cathedral, and those include more services than just the daily Vespers and Mass sung by the Cathedral Choir,’ Thomas Wilson tells us. ‘There are many services every week, including things like weddings and funerals where the organ plays. But, because our Choir is so busy with singing every day, the organ that accompanies the Choir is also extremely busy. Because we’re the busiest liturgical choir in this part of the world, it would also be the busiest liturgical organ.’
Normally, the Cathedral’s Choir would have up to twenty-four boys singing the treble line, aged between 9 and 13, and twelve adult men, who are professional singers. But during the lockdown which began towards the end of March last year, the very existence of music at the Cathedral’s liturgies was under threat. ‘Because there was uncertainty about the transmission of the virus, one of the things that health authorities were concerned about was the so-called aerosol spread through singing. Apart from that, during the first lockdown, people weren’t able to come to church. It was important therefore that church services were live-streamed, so that people could at least participate from their own homes in the liturgies,’ Thomas explains.
‘At that time of year, we were coming towards Easter and the most important and sacred ceremonies in Catholic tradition. So being able to provide something for people including music was very important for us. We had to think about the issues surrounding aerosol spread, which meant reducing the number of singers that sang even for these live-stream-only services, and it meant that we had to give more thought to where those singers would stand and how they could be physically distanced from one another, and from me as the conductor, and indeed from the person playing the organ.’
Normally, the Choir would sing from a position front and centre in the sanctuary, directly behind the main altar where Mass is being celebrated. In that area, there is an organ suitable for accompanying the Choir. ‘But because that space doesn’t make physical distancing of singers all that easy, and because we felt that it was important that the Choir should be as far away from everybody including the Celebrant and other ministers in the sanctuary, we had to move the singers. We’re lucky that we have a large Cathedral, with lots of resonant and empty spaces where it was possible to put singers, but what we didn’t have was an organ in any of those areas that would be able to accompany the Choir, and that was potentially a huge problem.’
The organ which usually accompanies the Choir is a Rodgers Infinity model, supplied by Principal Organs. Thomas got in touch with us to discuss the possibility of moving that instrument to the Choir’s temporary position. ‘We realized that actually that would be a very difficult and inadvisable thing to do. So Principal Organs very kindly offered to lend us a suitable organ that could accompany the Choir from its temporary position: a Makin Thirlmere.
‘We’re very lucky that Principal Organs had this particular instrument available, because the demands placed on an accompanimental organ in the Cathedral are considerable. That’s partly to do with the fact that it’s asked to play a huge range of repertoire, from accompanying Gregorian Chant to realizing the orchestral accompaniment of Viennese Masses by composers like Mozart and Haydn, or playing large-scale French organ Masses by composers such as Vierne or Widor, and any amount of other music in between. So it needs to be quite robust, and the Makin has a beautifully-made console that’s very comfortable to play, and that more than withstands the pressures placed on it by the Cathedral organists every day. Secondly, it has a very useful and versatile specification that enables us to perform all the repertoire that we need to in the course of the liturgical year.’
Much as Bob Wagner feels Sydney Grammar School’s Makin organ is a better than its predecessor as a replica of the instruments all around Sydney, Thomas Wilson is pleased with its overall character. ‘There are a number of very fine products built by American and European companies, but the Makin company produces an unashamedly and characteristically English organ. For Australian organists and church musicians, we have certain expectations, and there’s a resonance of the English sound and English style of organ-building that the Makin is able to use to reassure Australian organists. When it comes to a digital organ, there’s something very reassuring about the Makin console and instrument.’


A fruitful collaboration


Both Bob Wagner and Thomas Wilson are looking forward to future projects with Principal Organs. Sydney Grammar School has plans to purchase an electronic organ for its state-of-the-art concert hall. On a couple of occasions, they’ve hired a Rodgers organ from us to use in that hall. ‘I’m very impressed with the Rodgers instrument that we’ve hired, and Kerry Morenos was fantastic,’ Bob tells us. ‘She worked with our audio-visual team to get the instrument put through the house system properly.’
Thomas Wilson, meanwhile, is unequivocal about his trust for Principal Organs. ‘Their superior customer service goes above and beyond at every stage. The very fact that they’ve lent this organ to us is absolutely extraordinary. There have been many occasions, either for one-off events or for longer periods of time, where I’ve needed a creative solution to my problem, I’ve contacted Principal Organs, and they’ve always taken the time to listen to what I’ve been trying to achieve, and always exceeded any expectations. No problem is too large or small, and they’ve always put our needs at the top of their own list, so we’ve been very very grateful for our partnership with them over about ten years now.’

AUTHOR – Richard Flynn